Asuka Wine, Boulders & Rice Fields

I didn’t know wine was made so close to Osaka! I discovered that yesterday while cycling down a country road in Asuka, a historical national park southeast of Osaka city. I had decided to go to Asuka to test my camera. It seemed like an inviting place — an easy day-trip from Osaka — with plenty of things to photograph. I had first heard about Asuka from R and, after asking my students about it (their descriptions of the area were convincingly positive), I was keen to get there by mid-morning.

Most Osakans have visited the park on a school field trip. Asuka, an ancient administrative capital, is famous for its array of mysterious boulders strewn about the area. Untouched for more than a thousand years, no one really knows how they managed to get there. A half-dozen hamlets dot the area, flanked on all sides by rice fields. Here are there you can bump into one of these boulders, some colourfully named: Tortoise Stone, Two-Faced Stone, Devil’s Chopping Board. Other boulders serve as what appear to be ingeniously-made tombs, some of them so huge it baffles the imagination how they could have been carried and joined together almost seamlessly.

As I was about to discover, these boulders and tombs are not the only part of Asuka’s appeal. Whether you are a budding photographer, a hiker, a history buff or just a tired city dweller in need of some fresh air and greenery, Asuka is well worth a visit.

For some information on historical Asuka visit here.

R and I arrived at Kintetsu Asuka station after a 50 minute ride from Tennoji. Immediately on your left as you exit there is a visitor’s information center. They had a good map of the area in English. We rented bicycles from the shop next door and got on our way. I had hesitated before deciding to rent a bicycle (at 1000 yen each for the day) but was soon glad that I had. Asuka isn’t too huge for a walkabout, but having a bicycle guarantees you’ll see more in less time.

Asuka is divided into four areas (actually there are five areas but one is still under development). We managed to make it to two areas, and that was a full day of cycling around. With a car maybe you could see everything, but that wouldn’t be much fun. I am just looking forward to going back to see what is left to see — and taking another peak at the winery, but more on that later.

Takamatsuzuka Area

After cycling past a few rice fields, we came upon one of Asuka’s main attractions. the Takamatsuzuka Mural Museum. It’s a small museum that preserves a mural found on the walls of a burial chamber found in 1972, but estimated to be about 1300 years old. Fading and split by streaks of corrosion, its days are numbered — the museum officials say there is no way to preserve it and it may only be visible for a few more decades. There are two interesting parts to the mural collection, I thought: a circular dragon and a group of three Japanese ladies. The latter appeared to be aristocrats. Both images were in a muted red color, and of a style that I hadn’t seen before, but the brush work was fine and detailed. There was a little information in English and the “museum” is more like a small one-room gallery, but it’s historical value was appreciable.

Following one of the many possible routes outlined on the map, we crossed a wide stream and darted through a small wood before we came to the afore-mentioned Tortoise Stone. It was on a small path running parallel to the main road, and flanked by wide rice fields that went on into the distance, stopped only by a ring of hills to the south. Since it was mid-September, the rice stalks were tall and sagging with full-sized granules, each sprouting equally long, deep green leaves. I imagined it was only a few weeks or so before the harvest.

Further down the path was what became a common sight during our cycle around Asuka: a small wooden table set on the gravel with bunches of vegetables and fruit in plastic bags for sale. There was always a nearby tin can of some sort, usually covered in rust with a coin-sized hole at the top for you to drop your money in exchange for your choice of vegetable or fruit. Corn, eggplant, pumpkin squash, carrot, onion, red pepper, cabbage and even grapes were there for the picking. I couldn’t name most of the other things left there by the trusting farmer who was no where to be seen. I guess he comes by at the end of the day to pick up what fruit and vegetables are left, and empty out the can of coins. Very trusting, I thought, but that way of thinking is so like a foreigner in this country.

The midday sun was taking its toil. We saw what appeared to be a temple in the distance off the main road and sought it out for some shade. Coming towards it, we realized it was a restaurant not a temple, but thought it was a good time to have a lunch. We each had a bowl of udon. R had hers cold (something I can’t do) and I had mine hot with a helping of tempura prawns. There were no other customers. I wasn’t sure if this was once a temple, or if was just a glorified farmer’s house. It was propped up so that the flooring was almost a metre above the ground. We left our shoes on the steps and sat on the tatami mat to eat. It was completely open to the elements, but I was amazed how cool it was. A soft refreshing breeze blew in between the sliding door panels. I savoured the view of more rice fields and distant hills crowned by lethargic clouds, while sipping on barley tea. The nearby grasshoppers and toads were the only things we could hear.

Ishibutai Area

After passing a few large houses surrounded by rice fields, we entered a small hamlet, which I decided to explore by veering off the main road. There must have been no more than a half-dozen houses here, and I soon found myself facing another rice field. Looming on the left was a “hill” covered in patches of bamboo and thick trees. (I say “hill” but a Japanese would call it a mountain. Having grown up near the Rocky Mountains, I could not call these mere bumps in the land the same word that, to me, describes the tall, impassable towers of rock that surround Banff and Jasper.)

On the hill was something that I had spotted earlier while cycling down the road but which only now really intrigued me. Half-way up , surrounded by trees, was a fiery-hued three-storey pagoda.

Out of nowhere we came upon a small building selling refreshments and a parking lot with a man in uniform directing some cars. That meant only one thing: a major tourist spot. The man told us to park our bikes. We joined a group of other sweaty cyclists in the line for buying drinks or ice cream, then rested in the shade for a few minutes before heading out to see what was the big deal here.

The Ishibutai Tumulus is perhaps the most famous spot in Asuka. It amounts to what looks like a pile of boulders on the ground, but is actually a huge sunken chamber. Once you walk around it and then down a steep depression in the ground, you can make your way into a room that is flanked by massive stone boulders on three sides, as well as the ceiling and floor. One might be forgiven for dismissing it as not entirely impressive from an early gance, but given it’s reputed age –more than a thousand years — clearly it is a huge architectural feat. Three things strike me especially. First, the boulders are massive and must weigh a lot. How were they transported? Second, the boulders are placed on top of each other in an almost seamless way. How could people have managed that a thousand years ago? Third, the inner walls, ceiling and roof are almost perfectly flat, creating a real chamber-like feel. How did that come about? Was it natural or were the boulders chiseled?

It is very interesting how this presents more questions. In Europe, from the time of the Romans a common building material was stone. Wooden buildings were certainly constructed but anything of importance was built in stone. In Japan, the opposite occured. Stone buildings, to my knowledge, were practically non-existent; wood was the norm, with buildings that were perhaps susceptible to fire but otherwise managed to stay around for many centuries, much like their counterparts in Europe. And yet here in Asuka, there were these boulders which were obviously a sign of a civilisation that had expert use of stone, although these apparent tombs had no signs of masonry. Why then did these boulders come to be here; why is it that Asuka seems to be an anomaly and there aren’t other parts of Japan with similar boulders; and why, with this apparent foray into using stones for building did this civilisation not develop masonry skills like in the West?

There were other tumuli in the area but R and I didn’t get a chance to see them. After Ishibutai, we consulted our map and decided to find out how to get to that pagoda half-way up the hill I had seen earlier. According to the map it was Okadera Temple.

We followed a narrow road that began winding around crops of trees and small rice fields, gradually rising up the hill. Soon the angle became too steep and we dismounted from our bicycles and began pushing them up the hill. The sun was beating down our backs, my shirt was soaked in sweat. I was beginning to think a bicycle was not a good idea. According to the map there was a very steep grade coming soon. (There was even a character drawn on the map, along the path that we were on, obviously struggling and sweating, with the words “Very tough going!” written beside him).

We came upon a sunburnt man with a wrinkly face who was doing some woodwork in a shed beside the road. Below his shed were terraces of rice fields. The path further along disappeared under a tunnel of thick bamboo.

R stopped to talk to the man while I took a picture of the rice fields. (For some reason I had been struggling all day to get a picture of a rice field that could satisfy me. I don’t know why I felt obsessed by it; what was there in these green stalks that were so hard to give an accurate exposure reading? All my shots looked under-exposed and washed out whenever I checked the LCD panel)

R came over to report that the man, while talking her ear off had announced we were fools to go up the path on bicycles. We would be better off following the narrow gravel path that went from his shed down the hill where it joined a main road we could take to a parking lot that eventually led to the temple.

Down the path I sped, any feelings of regret for having got so far for nothing dispelled by the utterly rapturous breeze of air that sang by my ears and cooled my sweaty shoulders. We made it to the parking lot shortly after and parked our bikes, then starting climbing some stairs that led up a steep slope. At the top we turned left and before us was the temple gate. The late-afternoon sun was shining through the branches overhead. The light that fell on the orange-coloured, two-storey gate was divine.

We paid the entrance fee to the man who received us through a small window, then went through the gate, climbing more steps that wound up the mountain. Did I say mountain? Well it was certainly starting to feel like one now. At the top, one path led over to the main temple area while another swung around to the pagoda I had seen before. R went up ahead while I was distracted by some flowers (a chance to try out the macro setting on my camera) but I soon heard her calling to me, saying “What a nice view!”

I went after her, found her in front of the pagoda, and took in the view. Below us were the tops of trees, ending half-way down the slope, at which point the terraced rice fields began. In the distance were more hills and above it the sun making striking shapes with its rays cutting through the clouds. In between the distant hills and nearby rice fields was a busy landscape. The ground was uneven, and over it, managing anyway they could stood hamlets here and there, isolated buildings like large farmers’ houses, more rice fields, and the main road that snaked around them all.

I felt tired from the climb but invigorated from the view. The whole landscape in front of me seemed alive. There was a sense of energy and agelessness all about us. We stayed around for about an hour and then started our journey back to the station. It was already five o’clock, the time our rental bikes were due, but the old lady had said that if we came late we could just leave the bikes in front of her shop, so there was no hurry.

There were a few long slopes along the way, and I found it a real treat to be racing down the opposite side with the cool air bracing my whole body. R seemed to apply her brakes a lot, so I had to stop and wait for her to catch up. We followed the main road back to the station, passing all the places we had come across earlier, but now things had a different light about them in the late afternoon sun, so I stopped often to re-take a shot.

It was just before the last stream when suddenly my eye caught something: a vertical banner in the Japanese style with large katakana characters in purple: WINE. It was adorned with a drawing of fat purple grapes. There was an arrow pointing down a street that followed the stream, and flanked by –what else– rice fields. It wasn’t an even or straight road. We followed it as it winded its way beside the stream while the rice fields gave way to greenhouses and brown patches of soil studded with vines.

Just as the road reached the beginnings of another hamlet, we realized we had hit our destination. On the left was a similar looking sign to the one that had caught me before. We stopped and walked in the large garage that served as a store for the aptly named ASUKA WINE.

A few generous tastings and a lively conversation later (with the very friendly owner), we walked back out with two bottles, one a Kyohou (similar to a Rosé), and a medium Red.

I had never thought I would come across a winery so near to Osaka. I thought one day I would make it to Kofu to visit the a Japanese vineyard there. But this little trip to Asuka had turned into a real treat. I am sure to go back soon.

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